Although at first he had practised law, William George Armstrong, who became a peer in 1887, was always interested in engineering. His first success was in the field of hydraulic power transmission and he invented the hydraulic accumulator. His later activities extended to the designing and making of ordnance
THE name of Armstrong is perhaps not so unfamiliar to most people as that of other engineers, for it forms part of the designation of well-known firms still in existence; but probably only few know exactly what part William George Armstrong, afterwards Lord Armstrong, played in engineering history.
Armstrong, born at Newcastle-on-Tyne on November 26, 1810, spent his boyhood in circumstances of comfort and culture, his father being a man of considerable attainments and taking a prominent part in local affairs. The boy had the usual grammar school education of his times, but, apart from a characteristic interest in mechanical toys and models, there is little to record of these early days. Having left school, Armstrong was articled to a solicitor, and until 1847 was engaged in what was to him the uncongenial practice of law.
His spare time, however, had long been spent in amateur engineering, amateur only in the sense that he did not gain his livelihood by it. Attracted by that branch of engineering which had been neglected since its possibilities had been visualized by Bramah in 1802, namely hydraulic power transmission, Armstrong designed and built the first multiplying crane, which was erected at Newcastle Quay in 1846 The novelty and success of the machine attracted much notice and engineers from all parts of the world came to see it. In 1847 Armstrong abandoned law and joined a small engineering firm at Elswick, on the banks of the River Tyne.
Hydraulic machines had become an asset to the nation and orders came in at a great rate. One of the firm’s earliest installations was for hydraulic cranes, at Trafalgar Goods Station, Newcastle. Up to then power in any considerable amount was derived from steam, and it was not always convenient to have a boiler and steam engine at every point where power was wanted. Power could, however, be transmitted simply and quietly through pipes by means of water pressure.
At first the pressure available in the ordinary water mains was used, though supplemented in some instances by the building of water towers to give a sufficient head. This practice had some drawbacks, one being that the pipes and cylinders used had to be large if the pressure was low. Armstrong, therefore, set about to devise some other means of obtaining water at higher pressure. The result was the invention, in 1851, of that immensely useful apparatus the hydraulic accumulator. The accumulator is a large vertical cylinder containing a ram heavily loaded by scrap iron or other weighty material.
Water is pumped into the cylinder and the ram rises. The cylinder is connected to that of the crane, press, capstan engine or other hydraulic machine concerned, and when movement is required from this the weighted ram forces the water out of the accumulator at high pressure to it. As the movement of hydraulic machines is generally intermittent the supply of water in the accumulator is sufficient to run them as long as wanted, the pump starting to refill the accumulator when the ram is nearing the bottom of its stroke. At a pressure of 700 lb per sq in the consumption of two gallons of water a minute will produce one horse-power, and pressures of more than twice this are common. The invention of the accumulator further consolidated the firm’s position and hydraulic machinery continued to be developed and manufactured, but the events of the Crimean War (1854-56) led Armstrong into another field of engineering, that is, the making of ordnance. At that time the smoothbore muzzle-loading gun of cast iron or bronze was in general use in the British forces, On shipboard this type of gun, mounted on a wooden carriage, was considered to have reached its maximum size if it weighed 95 cwt. The heaviest ball weighed 94 lb and the biggest charge of powder was 16 lb. Armstrong developed a rifled, breech-loading gun which during his lifetime reached 110 tons in weight, firing a projectile of 2,000 lb and using a charge of 960 lb.
Briefly, the Armstrong gun consisted of several concentric tubes shrunk one over the other. At first Armstrong advocated wrought iron and became involved in numerous controversies with Bessemer, Whitworth and others over the use of steel, which had been adopted by Krupp and which he eventually used also.
The Elswick works grew up to become a great arsenal and shipyard, and many warships for British and foreign navies were built there. The works now form part of the organization of Vickers-Armstrongs, Ltd. The name survives also in the firm of Sir W G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. (Engineers) Ltd, of Newcastle-on-Tyne. The earlier title preserved here marks the knighthood bestowed upon Armstrong on the presentation of his gun invention to the nation. In the Jubilee year of 1887 he was raised to the peerage. The list of professional and academic honours bestowed upon him is long.
In the same way as many other successful engineers, he spent a large part of his wealth on philanthropic objects, and Newcastle owes two public parks and much else to him. In his later days Lord Armstrong was greatly interested in cattle breeding and agricultural pursuits and lived simply until December 27, 1900, saw the quiet end of a busy and useful life.